An almshouse, also known as a hospital, maison dieu, or in Scotland a parish house, is a charitable foundation for the care of the poor, particularly the elderly poor. It was originally the name given to that part of a medieval monastery in which alms – food and money – were distributed, but during the Middle Ages almshouses were often built by rich merchants for the needy members of their guilds.
Almshouses usually consisted of small houses of at most two storeys, sometimes arranged in a terrace, but often around three or four sides of a central court, with perhaps a separate house for the warden; they sometimes also incorporated a chapel and dining hall. By the mid-16th century there were about 800 almshouses across England. Those with chapels were regarded as chantries, chapels established by bequest in which a priest was paid to say masses and pray for the soul of the deceased benefactor,[a]Almshouses were also known as bede-houses, bede being a Middle English form of “bead”, an archaic term for “prayer”. which resulted in them being either sold off to landowners or left to ruin during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1539–1540).
Following the accession of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) some of the old almshouses were re-established, and many new ones founded by private benefactors. Beginning with the Act for the Relief of the Poor 1597, the charitable relief provided by almshouses was supplemented by a series of Poor Laws.
As at 2023 there are more than 30,000 almshouse dwellings in the UK, accommodating more than 36,000 residents, known as qualified beneficiaries. Instead of rent they are required to pay a weekly maintenance contribution “that must not be set at a level that would cause hardship”.
Almshouse trusts were generally founded by benefactors in earlier times to provide for those in need and often to cater for a particular group of people. Today there are almshouses for retired fishermen, miners, retail workers and a host of other groups in addition to the elderly. Some almshouse charities have no age restrictions and are able to accommodate families, the disabled and key workers.